Go Sailing!  The fleet on a run in Buzzard’s Bay.

A few years ago, I read Nicholas Hayes’s 2009 book, Saving Sailing, in which he writes about the results he gathered from surveys of nearly 6,000 sailors worldwide. The survey data he  compiled show a steep decline in the numbers of people sailing, which is troubling, indeed.  Hayes ultimately attributes this decline to a cultural shift, where, since today’s families are less likely to be sailing together, the inter-generational mentoring possibilities that can develop a lifelong passion for sailing are far less available than they were in previous generations.  This seems to be happening not only because there are so many competing demands for our time, but also, Hayes thinks, because children are increasingly segregated into youth programs, which leaves even less opportunity for families to sail together.  Despite the data, however, there are still those who do make sailing a priority — perhaps because they had the great good luck to grow up on a sailboat, and can’t ever imagine not sailing, or because, after all those years of relenting to other, more  pressing demands, they finally find themselves with some time to get out and sail.

More recently, Hayes was interviewed by Sail America (June, 2014), and I was particularly interested to read in the interview that adult women (between the ages of 25-45) are the fastest growing demographic of new sailors.  It’s his opinion that these women are embracing sailing because of their personal networks and the social benefits that sailing can offer.  I would wholeheartedly agree with this, being a woman who has come to sailing later in life, and who is committed (driven?) to learning everything possible about being a sailor.  Looking back at my own experience, I would say that it’s all about having that personal connection to someone who invites you aboard that makes you dare to try, and the community of friends who can keep you going as you pursue your goals.

Where do the Yacht Clubs figure in all this? Some have argued that the Yacht Clubs have failed to do enough to help encourage new sailors, and that because of their exclusivity are inherently not set up to get more and diverse people out on sailboats. Although more Clubs are offering adult learn-to-sail programs, I believe that the ultimate success of turning these newer sailors into lifelong sailors depends heavily on having someone to support them as they progress, or, at the very least, having someone reach out and show them that there’s a way to participate, and a place where they can fit in and be a part of things.  A place where everybody knows your name!  We have to find new ways to foster these supportive relationships, which are the most important element in helping new sailors develop their passion for sailing.

I know firsthand that taking that first step, as an adult, to try one’s hand at sailing, can be overwhelming – maybe especially if you are a member of a Club full of expert sailors. After all, it just takes one cursory look at the Race Committee’s bulletin board to drive home the point that there are sailors who are on a level you can’t even imagine at the beginning of your own journey. It can be daunting, to say the least. I find it ironic that at the same time newer sailors are trying to find a way “in,” many Clubs are struggling to maintain and grow their racing fleets.  I would suggest that the fleet captains and others in the Club’s hierarchy can and should take a bigger responsibility in encouraging new teams and new sailors to participate. They should be part of what Hayes calls the “mentoring continuum,” working in tandem with sailing instructors, skippers, and each other, in identifying enthusiastic new sailors who are looking for their next steps in developing their sailing skill.

As many sailors will agree, nothing will teach you more about sailing and boat handling than racing, and if, at it’s core, a racing fleet is committed to growing and offering crew positions to newer sailors, it can be a win-win situation. In our fleet, we have followed this method, and have seen the fleet grow from 8 boats to 20 (and still growing!), and have seen the skill level of many of the sailors improve greatly. Mentoring relationships develop naturally in this environment, and if the fleet is committed to helping find ways for this to happen, it can be incredibly rewarding for everyone. Trust me, it works.  As one of our fleet’s captains, I’ve been doing this for the past four years, and it’s something I’ll be talking more about in future posts.

Yes, it takes an ongoing commitment to get to know and encourage each new sailor, and to try to fit him or her in within an existing fleet of boats. But it’s well worth the effort! Little by little, with their new knowledge and burgeoning skills, and the community and camaraderie of the fleet, these newer sailors are integrated in a meaningful way into the Club’s activities. Maybe they’ll never skipper their own boat, but on the other hand, maybe a few will have the admirable goal to have their own boat on the line in a few seasons. It takes all kinds to make a fleet work. And having newer sailors crewing for seasoned skippers is a natural and easy way to let a mentoring relationship begin.

I was encouraged to see that US Sailing has recently launched their “First Sail” campaign, which will support Community Sailing Centers around the country. I think this is a fantastic message and a laudable commitment, and one that will hopefully inspire new sailing communities to evolve and flourish. There are some excellent Centers which are doing terrific things – and the benefit to newer sailors is that they can take advantage not only of learn-to-sail programs, but also participate in racing, training seminars and on-the-water coaching, which can really benefit sailors of all skill levels. The great thing about these Centers is that you don’t have to own a boat, which makes sailing far more accessible to many more. These organizations often offer sailing programs for disadvantaged youth, as well, which is great in promoting the diversity we would all hope for. Who could imagine better place for inspiring teamwork, goal setting and personal motivation, than being on a sailboat?

Unfortunately, we’ve gone a generation or so without families being able to commit to go sailing with one another, and far from from those “good old days” when Club racing was truly a family affair. Too many other competing activities have eaten away at the sailors’ and families’ time. Kids don’t sail with their grandparents anymore. The links are weakening. The good news is that Mr. Hayes’s book has gotten people thinking. And it’s great to see that Clubs are evolving and that these really excellent Community Sailing Centers are being born. Looking forward, I think we will see Clubs trying to emulate some of what the Community Sailing Centers are doing, especially as fleet numbers decline, and new sailors are needed to keep them vibrant.

So what’s the moral of this story?  Simple.  We need to work together to find new ways to create real  “sailing communities” that will enable mentoring to flourish and help new sailors develop their confidence and passion for sailing.

I think we’re on the right track, but there’s a lot of work to be done!

Deborah Bennett Elfers
I was practically born on a boat, though on a working lobster boat rather than a sailboat. In my early days, I sailed quite a lot on a Sunfish, but not very elegantly, as in our little neighborhood “fleet,” the boat was primarily used as a weapon in a wildly popular game of “kill the other guy!” Who could have imagined way back then, that one day I’d become so passionate about all things sailing?
Deborah Bennett Elfers
Deborah Bennett Elfers

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